July 31-- Jul. 31--With nearly 800 square miles of forested and mountainous wilderness, North Cascades National Park provides a wondrous view of rugged nature. But for generations, something has been missing from the park's natural state -- grizzly bears.

Estimates are that the park's grizzly population consists of about 10 bears, and the federal government is considering proposals to repopulate the giant predator in the region.

Last week, officials reopened public comment on a draft proposal and environmental impact statement for the reintroduction of grizzlies in the North Cascades ecosystem. Comment had been suspended without explanation in August, and the new period is scheduled to run through Oct. 24.

Grizzly bears once were common in the region, with habitat extending far beyond what is now the national park. According to Hudson's Bay Company records, 3,788 grizzly hides were shipped from North Cascade posts between 1827 and 1859. But, as The (Spokane) Spokesman-Review reports: "Commercial hunting, government bounties, habitat destruction and fragmentation pushed the species to the brink of extirpation in the Lower 48." The last grizzly killed in Washington was in 1967, and between 1950 and 1991 there were only 20 confirmed sightings in the Cascade zone.

Three plans are being considered, all with the goal of eventually increasing the grizzly population to about 200 bears in and around North Cascades National Park -- including habitat that extends into Canada. One option would seek to achieve that goal within 25 years, while others would extend the project up to 100 years.

Many people, particularly ranchers, have no desire to welcome grizzlies to the area. U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Sunnyside, is an outspoken opponent of the proposal. Danny DeFranco, executive director of the Washington Cattleman's Association, told the Spokesman-Review: "We've seen Fish and Wildlife and how they managed an apex predator like wolves in our state. That mismanagement of that species is going to carry over to grizzly bears."

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And some have expressed concern about a danger to people who visit the bears' habitat. Grizzlies killed a hunting guide last year in Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, but reports of grizzly attacks are rare even in wilderness where the bear is more populous.

Proponents point out the ecological benefits of grizzlies. When bears do what they do in the woods, seeds from plants they have ingested get scattered, along with nutrients from the trout and salmon they eat. According to research at Oregon State University, bear scat is beneficial to rodents and plants, boosting a fragile and complex ecosystem.

The return of an apex predator helps restore balance that can have widespread consequences. In Yellowstone National Park, the re-introduction of wolves a quarter-century ago helped thin overpopulated elk herds. That, in turn, left more berries for bears; shored up river banks to the benefit of beavers, otters and fish; increased the growth of trees that invited songbirds; and created a trophic cascade of changes to the park.

The return of some 200 grizzlies to a vast area is unlikely to have such an extensive impact, but the benefits, costs and risks are worth considering. The concerns of ranchers whose livestock might be threatened, as well as the thoughts of recreational visitors, must be heard.

Good arguments exist on both sides of an issue that could help reconfigure the Washington wilderness. The federal government is wise to start listening again.

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